To set aside an interminable poppy dispute and those questions about the national captain’s attitude to race in modern Britain, the visit of the world and European champions to Wembley on Saturday is likely to expose some uncomfortable footballing truths for their hosts.
Here is a game barely burdened by footballing discussion in its build-up. Perhaps this comes as a result of the expectation that a rather under-strength England team will be easily dispatched by a Spain team flush with many of the stars who have guided them to primacy.
This will be the Spanish national team’s first visit to Wembley since a controversial penalty shootout defeat in the quarter-finals of Euro ’96. On English shores, it is a day remembered for the heroics that powered David Seaman to national celebrity and Stuart Pearce to fist-pumping vindication; in Spain, there remains a latency of feeling about two goals chalked off wrongly for offside.
Since then, these two superpowers have only met on friendly occasions, with the Spanish victorious every time since a rainy February night in 2001 when the Sven Goran Eriksson era began with a 3-0 win at Villa Park. In the three matches since, England have not scored against the Spanish, and rarely looked like doing so either.
The last meeting came in February 2009, when goals from David Villa and Fernando Llorente were just reward for Spanish dominance. It was a night when David Beckham matched the outfield England cap record of 108, as once held by Bobby Moore, but this was no night of celebrations for a country’s favourite son.
“One step into reality” is how Fabio Capello described it when speaking in Seville that night. “I hope in the future we will win. We tried to play like we do usually, but the pressing Spain did to win the ball back showed they are a very good team.”
Since then, how England play usually is a cause for national derision, with an Italian maestro seemingly powerless to effect improvement. His England regime has not overturned the reality served in Seville. Indeed, the intervening years have been especially hard on the realism front. England, a nation that gets so excited, and usually so hopeful about its team’s chances at tournaments is preparing for the worst. A sell-out crowd is a tribute to a country enveloped and devoted to football. They will come to see a footballing masterclass, and expect the Spanish to supply it. England player to watch: Daniel Sturridge
There is, of course, one player on whom many eyes will be placed. But we will press on from there, and let that issue take its course. His Chelsea team-mate is a young man of whom much is expected, but it has not yet been delivered. The early-season signs were that he was deserving of an England place, and many were confused that he was not called for the Montenegro game. He now has his head, but in reduced circumstances, as recent performances have been less impressive, with Arsenal a particular disappointment. His self-confidence is undoubted, and his country needs a forward option in the absence of Wayne Rooney.